Robenson Therezie had it in his fingertips.
In his first season as the "star" in Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defense, the hybrid safety/linebacker and the rest of the Auburn secondary had a national title within their reach, containing Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and the rest of the Florida State wide receivers for the majority of the 2014 BCS National Championship Game following the 2013 season.
Then the fourth quarter happened, and one final drive where it all became unraveled.
Cornerback Chris Davis and safety Ryan Smith missed tackles on wide receiver Rashad Greene, as he scampered 49 yards down the sideline to set up the game-winning score—a perfect strike from Winston to Kelvin Benjamin that Davis couldn't get to.
Thirteen seconds remained on the clock. Therezie and the rest of the Auburn secondary aren't going to forget about them.
ROBENSON THEREZIE (@cadilac_34) February 27, 2014
The pass defense that finished next-to-last in the SEC (257.7 YPG) showed up in the final frame of the national title game, and it cost the Tigers a title.
Davis and Smith are gone, but Therezie is back along with boundary corner Jonathon Mincy (assuming his recent arrest doesn't cost him too much time) and safety Jermaine Whitehead. The trio has lot of help alongside them and, perhaps more importantly, depth.
Josh Holsey is back after injuring his ACL last year, and will likely push for playing time at boundary safety along with junior college signee Derrick Moncrief. Holsey could also move around to boundary corner or "star" if needed according to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, via AL.com's Joe A. Erickson.
"Josh is big enough to play boundary safety and big enough to play star," Johnson told Erickson this spring. "Boundary corner, that’s the really critical spot in our roster. Mincy has made a good transition so far, but Josh may end up moving back to boundary corner if we have to move Mincy around. We’ve got a lot of flexibility and moving parts."
Trovon Reed, once a 5-star wide receiver prospect, moved over to cornerback for his senior season on the Plains and played well as a starter in the spring game. He may not stay as a starter, though, because T.J. Davis, Jonathan Jones and three 4-star freshmen—Kalvaraz Bessent, Nick Ruffin and the versatile Stephen Roberts—could all push for playing time.
In just one offseason, Auburn has found depth and created flexibility in a secondary that lacked both during the SEC championship season of 2013.
These guys don't have to be great. They have to be opportunistic. Auburn's going to move the football and put up points, and in this day and age of fast-break football, simply putting your offense in a good position once or twice a game changes the landscape of the game entirely.
They can do that. The Tigers notched 13 interceptions last year, which placed them in the middle of the SEC pack (seventh). That was nearly good enough to get the job done, and that was without the depth and flexibility that the Tigers have in 2014.
Will Auburn finish in the top half of the SEC in pass defense in 2014?
Plus, they'll get help up front.
Auburn's defensive line is loaded with talent and, like the secondary, is remarkably flexible. If the Tigers want to drop defensive end Elijah Daniel down to tackle in passing situations, they can do that. If they want to move defensive tackle Gabe Wright to defensive end to create mismatches, they can do that. Auburn will be able generate pressure with four, which will be a huge benefit on the back end.
The Tigers will be in the mix for a College Football Playoff berth regardless, and if the secondary takes just a small step forward, it will go a long way toward securing one of those four coveted spots.